‘Birdsong’ is a contemporary novel written by Sebastian Faulks in 1993. The novel is written in 3rd person narrative suggesting a opinion viewpoint. Faulks begins the novel before the First World War, establishing a pre-war society which was prevalent across Europe at this time, showing social tensions and a possible cause for the war including concerns of nationalism and the rivalry for trade between countries. When Stephen arrives in France, he unknowingly establishes and underlines a theme of greed and greater profit for lower costs-a theme carried out throughout the novel. These lower costs are essentially the wages for the work force which Stephen emphases the monetary worth of the lower class, foreshadowing the grave use of the soldiers further on in the novel.
Faulks begins his novel in the Edwardian period , examining the causes and the rise of nationalism throughout the country as war breaks out. The rise of nationalism is extremely important to remember throughout the novel, men were obsessed with the idea of money and profit and the deafening roar of nationalism quickly overshadowed every concern and moral as war began. As industries were modernised, workers were no longer needed unless it were to operate the machinery. These workers quickly became cogs in a machine in one massive operation ran by greed and the need for nationalism. The soldiers fighting and risking their lives for their country are likened to cogs in a machine, as they are thought of mere tools to be used, machinery language is used to dehumanise and de-emote the soldiers sacrificed for a country.
Stephen travels to France describing the picturesque scene of The Somme. The simple and pastoral imagery described “On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilac and willows, cultivated to give shade and quietness to their owners” is ironic to the horrors of the war and the destruction of the landscape later seen in the novel. This idyllic setting is merely a façade to to hide the cracks and the mask of an immoral and corrupt society. The initial description of Azaire’s wealthy and prosperous grand house suggests the impression of power, wealth and security within the family and household “there was a formidable front door with iron facings”, the iron suggests the emerge of nationalisation and the established industrial revolution and how it progresses throughout the period. This rich and grand description contrasts severely with the strong class distinction of the children in “ragged clothes”. This clearly shows the social divide and the poverty that was a present feature of society, yet in war all soldiers are equal, all attempting to survive the devastating war and haunting events.
The novel swiftly moves on to the outbreak of war and the chaos the soldiers are forced to suffer with the relentless attack of bombs being dropped and the piercing screams of the bullets being fired around the men. The war echoes war poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. These poets were the complete contrast to pro-war propaganda poets such as Jessie Pope as they told the unheard catastrophic reality of the war. The unnatural sounds of battle and the constant buzzing noise of the war around the men essentially dehumanises them. The “sharp wailing” and the “shrill, demented sound” cuts through the chaotic atmosphere of the bullets being fired and mentally and physically destroys the soldiers who are forced to listen to the piercing sounds around them. The word “demented” could possibly suggest how the war is quickly twisting and ruining the soldiers mental state after being forced to endure the war.
Faulks uses the dehumanisation as the most central theme of the novel as well as the class distinction seen earlier in the contrasting images of the greedy rich and the scavenging poor. Faulks unimaginably illustrates how these young men, these normal civilians, have been taken and transformed into unnatural machines, their feelings and mind numbed to their job of slaughtering the opposing side whilst enduring horrific circumstances. Stephen, ‘Birdsong’s protagonist and Faulk’s mouthpiece, questions the war and its purpose concluding that “this is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded”. This realisation of Stephen, a universal thought applied to all soldiers risking their lives for their country, questions and finally understands that innocent men glorified by their country’s uniform will be pushed to the appalling and sickening extremes of war.
Towards the end of the novel, we see how Elizabeth’s sole purpose is to represent the civilians at home completely ignorant to the true horrors of the grave reality the soldiers endured daily. Stephen states how “No one in England knows what this is like” suggesting the resentment and anger towards those who were not literally laying their lives down for their country. Stephen’s anger could initially be aimed at the propaganda and how the war was glorified to persuade young naive men to enlist, not truly understanding the true terrors the war held for them, an act of man’s inhumanity to mankind. Elizabeth, for the audience, represents the lack of education of the First World War. As she slowly discovers and unravels only the edge of the shocking reality, Elizabeth not only reminds us of the horrors of war but how it was in fact not that long ago. Elizabeth’s purpose in this novel is not only to expose the readers to the devastation of war but also how easily it can be forgotten, putting time context into the novel. The novel finishes with an air of finality and a sense of the future with a new generation being born with optimism that life will be different.
Elizabeth adding time context into the novel only makes it more blatantly clear how men a few years ago could glorify such a monstrous and appalling event and persuade young men to literally lay down their lives for their country. For me, Faulks executes the sheer volume of the dehumanisation of men, how men were pushed into an chaotic and atmosphere and relentlessly attacked by other men, forced to commit massacres all for “what they had been told was their country”. This sickening concept not only dehumanised the once regular civilians, but also portrays how easily man can commit the up-most inhumane act against mankind.